Returning Art to the Big Picture: The Implications of Fan Culture for 21st Century Art

by Duncan Alexander

Postmodern art is at the end of its life. The monolith of Modernism was torn down successfully decades ago, and since then, the once hip, edgy and avant-garde movement has run out of places to go. Instead, ‘fine’ art has turned inward, gnawing at its own structures in critique. Meanwhile, popular culture has dramatically changed around art from a mainstream, centralized package into a plurality of fandoms with their own artistic methods and traditions. With this essay, I intend to explore the nature of this shift, its implications for art, and the methods which current artists are using in the new cultural model.

To start off, I’d like to address a recent article by Matthew Nash that tries to explain the birth and lifespan of Postmodern art. In “The Endgame of Postmodernism,” the author compares the ‘endgame’ of Modernist art with what he sees as a current ‘endgame’ in Postmodern art. To elaborate, Nash explains how the specific philosophies of the Abstract Expressionist painters and later Minimalists lent to what eventually became an escalation towards the ‘last painting.’ The Cold-War of Modernism eventually ended not with a perfect painting or sculpture, but with the realization of the folly in the attempt and subsequent rejection of Modernist tenets by a growing body of artists. This conscious rejection became the artistic movement we now know as Postmodernism.

            “Postmodernism only exists in juxtaposition to Modernism,” Nash explains. Modernist artwork could essentially only be created by white males, a group which held power over all of pre-Modernist Western art as well. The death of Modernist art meant that many new voices and identities could finally enter the dialogue, but it also meant that a critique of Modernism had to be present in Postmodern art in order for there to be cohesiveness to the movement. This might have been a release at first, but as the movement continued, Nash says that complexity of critiques began increasing. This is not to say that their critiques were unimportant, but that eventually Postmodernism was using the invocation of Modernist forms and tenets as a crutch. To uninformed viewers, Nash explains, Janine Antoni’s gnawed chocolate and lard cubes do not function as critiques of sculpture by Donald Judd, but rather are nothing more than cubes. The diminishing cultural power of such a critique, although perhaps not consciously noted by artists, led to what we now see as the fractured, over-reaching nature of Postmodern art. Because of this, many people have asked what could possibly follow an art movement of such breadth.

            Most importantly, Nash hits upon the tie that binds all contemporary Postmodern work together. He suggests that the movement did not simply abandon Modernist critique, but rather expanded its reevaluation of politics to all art history. Drawing in all forms of artwork from the centuries, artists have taken to constructing more than works, but have taken to building historical contexts in which their own work functions. Postmodern critics have found it impossible to accurately critique Postmodern art using much more than their own personal tastes and vague sociological frameworks: the work of art has been self-contained, impossible to touch.

            This is where I must break with Nash in his evaluation of contemporary art. He ends his article with a discussion on how critique in Postmodern art has moved toward reevaluating Postmodern art instead of its original Modernist target. Nash sees two possibilities for the future: a return to some form of structure presumably devised from psychology, politics and sociology as before, or a continuation of the fracturing of art into physically localized movements, what he calls “Yokelism.” However, he forgets where and when he is speaking from: the digital age. There is no longer a common culture. White male modernists no longer have nearly as great a hold as they did over the transmission and visibility of ideas. Information is now easily exchanged across physical boundaries, and artists are unlikely to avoid the influence of others when search engines can call up work from the other side of the world in seconds.

            However, this is not to say that online information and culture is distributed equally to all users. Anyone familiar with the Internet knows that certain websites develop their own cultures and aesthetics, and often many smaller communities share members and work towards similar ideas. This practice began with ‘webrings’ in the early days of the World Wide Web, and expanded to message boards, social networks, the interlinking of identities in multiple social networks, and ‘surfing clubs’ that collect and produce similar content on behalf of the ideals of the whole.

            A friend of mine once half-seriously joked that “Postmodernism died on August 7, 2000.” This was the day that Deviant Art, one of the largest arts-and-crafts based communities on the Internet, was founded. What he meant by this remark was that the relevancy of fine art in society had begun to diminish because of the rise of group-centric art practices. Deviant Art allows producers of images, music and literature to band together via connected profiles and share their content. Most of the content hosted is ‘fan art,’ unofficial art depicting characters from pop culture. These works fall all over the board in quality, from highly polished paintings and sculptural work to crude (and often vulgar) crayon drawings produced by the sites’ younger or less talented inhabitants. The advantage of this system for all participants is that it contains an artificial structure – all artists know what the characters should look like, and so can test the flexibility of the personas and settings that fans bring to the Web.

            Another example of online artistic localization would be the simple websites produced by members of, started in 2001. Given technical limitations – websites must have minimal text, tiled or centered background images no larger than a particular size, and a small sound file looping in the background – site members have produced pages that are perverse, zen-like, witty, uplifting, political, ‘trippy,’ erotic and nostalgic. The sites require no knowledge of art history to communicate to their viewers; rather, most function using charged imagery, puns, and pop culture references. It is difficult to argue that YTMND websites are not a bizarre form of art; in fact, recently several artists hosted an exhibition of several pages from the site.

            My examples of localization that I have discussed so far have been internet-specific, but I should be clear that the phenomenon is not limited to online, ‘outsider’ art. I would go as far as to include artist Takashi Murakami in this trend, with his use of the now globally recognizable Anime aesthetic. His art does not need an understanding of art history in order to enjoy the work. Viewers can choose to delve into the political underpinnings of his paintings, relate to them by their personal experience of Anime, or even enjoy them purely aesthetically. They are a new form of Pop, more interested in the “stock image” shapes that construct Anime than the content itself. Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki collective also explores multiple reinterpretations of the base of the Anime aesthetic, resulting in the style/philosophy that they term ‘Superflat.’

            All of these new approaches towards creating relevant, simplified art share the quality of using elements from contemporary culture either literally or symbolically. Is this a reemergence of Pop? Pop art initially relied on a homogeneous culture that existed in the West during the 1950s and 60s. For instance, Warhol’s Silver Elvises were universally recognizable in the Western world of 1963. Everyone saw Elvis in movies and on TV because the establishment supported him, as much as they might have pretended otherwise. Today, we have no contemporary personalities as widely known or as persistent as Elvis in pop culture. Because content distribution is now so ubiquitous and white male-centric power structures have been crumbling, subjects of interest have become so diverse that social interactions more and more often consist of sharing fresh content and taking pleasure from coincidental convergences. As group members interact more, they construct a set of in-jokes, necessary texts for discourse, and an aesthetic. No longer do members of society require as specific an education in traditional culture. Instead, people become fans of trends, celebrities, and subcultures because fandoms give individuals choice over their acculturation, their affiliation, and their identity.

            Throughout most of modern history, ‘cultured’ members of society were expected to read specific literature, listen to specific music, and visit specific locations throughout their lifetimes. Today, no such global expectation exists. Instead, personal interests have filled the role of the cultured education: when a person has a passion, there are usually groups that they can join that focus on the interest. These groups encourage their members to become familiar with material associated with the interest, and thus define their own ‘canon.’ We call these people fans. Being a fan of a subject gives individuals much more control over how they construct their personality and peer group than did the previous model, especially because fans are free to opt out of their groups at any time. Interests and communities change, and so fans move from obsession to obsession, taking on new roles and gaining new knowledge as they go. Fans are not limited to one canon at a time; in fact, most people are fans of multiple subjects at once. Having the ability to move between peer groups and explore different ideas gives the fan immense power over their character and functionality in wider discourse in general. This is especially true of the younger portion of the population more accustomed to a world where the Internet (among other factors) has provided the opportunity for focus groups to form on any obscure subject.

            As the transition from a standardized popular culture to a fandom culture has occurred, fine art has wavered between supporting one or the other. Because of Postmodern art’s current obsession with its endgame, it loses its ability to examine culture because it becomes its own fandom. Art – good art – has historically depended on its relevancy to culture to survive and grow. When art has become detached from common culture, new rebellious forms of art have appeared to replace it. Consider the rise of Impressionism in opposition to Academic art in the 19th  In the same way, today’s art that draws on the localized cultures of fandoms is the contemporary avant-garde.
century, or the earlier trumping of Rococo by Neoclassicism due to the rise of democracy.

            We know from the death of Modernism that creating art with universal meaning is impossible. Postmodernism’s lesson is that we should not depend on one group for subject matter, otherwise artwork becomes too convoluted and ‘insider.’ Contemporary art has become separated from culture; far too many people complain about the level of education necessary to experience and appreciate Postmodern art. The way to reunite art and culture becomes apparent with the acceptance of these results. Art that draws upon the new plural nature of popular culture rather than segregating itself will thrive in a society composed of fandoms.

Naturally, such a shift could not occur overnight; in fact, many artists have already begun operating in the new model. One example of fine artists currently pursuing this goal would be the Kaikai Kiki collective as stated before for their deconstruction of Anime imagery, history and culture. The Rhode Island-based art collective Paper Rad appropriates garish early computer graphics and synthesized music to create pseudo-nostalgic, messy videos and installations that possess what they might term a ‘tween’ aesthetic. One of the most recent artists that I’ve found to exemplify this approach is German photographer Martin Denker, whose digital collages draw from Mac Microsoft Office icons, Sonic the Hedgehog characters, and digital stills from his own photos to create abstract collages with an amplified Kandinsky-like energy. By utilizing both symbolic and iconic imagery familiar to various fandoms in compositional methods informed by fine art, these artists are creating work that resonates with contemporary viewers.

One last aspect of this new movement I’d like to discuss is subject matter and formal construction. In much late Postmodern art, we see a drive toward the reuse of older compositions and subjects in order to convey a new point. For some examples, consider the countless reworkings of Manet’s Olympia, or the Stuckists’ painted slurs and humorous shark-effigies aimed towards the works of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Not only is this art only self-serving for the fine art community, but it is uninteresting. Fan art follows a similar method, redrawing and recoloring standardized images from the derivative franchise in such a way that hits the viewer over the head with the identities depicted. This approach has leaked over into contemporary art as well; consider Jeff Koons’ Michael Jackson and Bubbles.

Artists that have been willing to get their hands messy in fan culture while avoiding a ham-handed, icon heavy approach tend to take a different path, inventing new compositions and new subject matter, while drawing their formal qualities from fandom aesthetics. This approach makes itself distinct from naïve fan art because of its complexity and separation from a particular fandom, and from Postmodern art, because of its openness to greater culture. However, the art retains power because of the broad familiarity of its constituent parts, though it is inevitable that different fans will read the works in different ways. For instance, Paper Rad’s short video artwork Peace Tape is a beat-driven cacophony of images and sounds that evoke visceral responses, use cultural images, and above all, are subtle in their juxtaposition. For some people, the video carries nostalgia in its references and in-jokes, while for others it reads as an artwork focused more on its own digital composition. Regardless, it uses ‘fine’ art concepts such as composition, line hierarchies, and color systems to engage the viewer, while keeping itself free from the narcissistic ethos of Postmodern art.

With the identification of the state of contemporary art comes both a degree of disappointment with the lack of foresight and of excitement for the future. More than anything, however, the defeat of Postmodern art by the formation of fan culture should embolden artists to take up the challenge that the new culture presents. No longer is artwork restrained by the implicit endgame of rejection and reevaluation; instead, it can grow along with the innumerable groups and fandoms that drive society’s creativity.

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